A Philadelphia man was released 37 years after being sentenced to jail for murder when a federal judge found that prosecutors in his case had withheld evidence of a crucial witness’s false testimony.
Willie Stokes’ conviction was overturned after it was revealed that the witness, Franklin Lee, had given a false statement to Philadelphia police in exchange for “sex, drugs, and a deal,” according to The Washington Post.
When Lee was charged with murder and rape in 1984, he was promised a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony. “They said I wouldn’t do no more than two to five, the most seven years,” he said.
The man’s testimony was the only link between Stokes and Leslie Campbell’s murder in North Philadelphia in 1984. During the trial, the individual recanted his claim that Stokes had confessed to killing Campbell. Prosecutors claimed he was not credible after retracting his statement.
On August 21, 1984, Stokes was found guilty of first-degree murder and possession of a criminal instrument, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release. Lee was prosecuted with perjury afterwards, although Stokes was unaware of this until 2015.
According to the Washington Post, during a November 2021 hearing, Lee testified for Stokes and informed Michael Diamondstein, Stokes’ attorney, that Stokes never told him he killed anyone.
The man also apologized to Stokes, saying, “I’d like to for the record, if I can, apologize to Mr. Stokes and the family for the problem I caused, sincerely.”
According to the report, Stokes did not reply in court, but he cried. “Let the record reflect he’s crying,” Judge Carol Sandra Moore Wells, the district court judge, pointed out. “I’m going to take his tears to indicate he’s accepting the apology.”
Diamondstein said that when his client was released and “took his first free breaths this afternoon after almost 40 years,” he was “very happy and humbled.” He added that his client wanted to “get a corned beef hoagie.”
“What happened here was an abomination,” Diamondstein said. “For too many years, law enforcement in Philadelphia have treated Black and Brown people like they are expendable and this case is a stark reminder it has to stop.”
According to court documents, the two cops in the case had been accused of using “coercive measures” on several occasions over the years.
“Today is a tremendous day. We’re all very thankful,” Diamondstein told KMVT. “However, it’s also a sad day, because it reminds us of how lawless, unfair, and unjust Philadelphia law enforcement was for so long.”